"How do you know there's peace on earth in a world that isn't very peaceful?" Casting Crowns' Mark Hall has never been one to shy away from the hard questions-even at Christmas-especially at Christmas. And this question, perhaps more than any other, turns the key to understanding the relentless hope pervading his band's aptly titled new album, Peace on Earth (Reunion)-an album that, given these turbulent times, seems downright defiant.
"How do you know there's peace on earth?" echoes Hall. "Jesus said, 'They will know that you love Me by the way you love each other.' And at one point, He even said, 'They will know that I come from God by the way you love each other.' As long as the people of God are here, there's hope."
The believer, the church, is God's peace on earth? "If God can change me, He can change anybody, " Hall continues. "If God can bring someone else through a storm in his or her life, He can bring peace into your life. So when the people of God are here, there's peace, because there's hope that God can change anyone's life."
With that, it's safe to assume this Casting Crown's Christmas album isn't the stuff of Santa, Jack Frost or magical snowmen. On the contrary, this timely disc has godsend written all over it. Should we be surprised? After all, given the band's history, it's no secret its frontman/ principal songwriter is for all intents and purposes a youth pastor in the guise of a Christian music star. While selling millions of records (as in 4 million) and winning GRAMMY, Dove, and American Music Awards, he remains the youth minister at Eagle's Landing First Baptist Church near Atlanta. Considering this is a calling he's passionately embraced for 17 years and counting, it's no wonder Hall dismisses fame as a distraction.
And it's some distraction. Casting Crowns may have been the No.1 selling artist of 2007 on Billboard's Christian/Gospel year-end chart and headlined the top-grossing Christian music tour of the '07/'08 season, but the band's music obviously reaches far beyond its huge core fanbase. When Casting Crowns released its third studio album-2007's The Altar and the Door-the record immediately became the No. 2 selling CD of any kind in America.
With this in mind, what does Hall hope for the new follow-up Peace on Earth? "I want to see people rediscover the worship that Christmas songs have in them, " he says. "A lot of times, when we sing carols, we sort of shift into Christmas carol mode-singing songs that we've been singing for so long, we might not be hearing what they're really saying."
Rediscovering the worship in Christmas songs? Helping people connect with the original meaning in world-renowned classics is one thing, but when the classics of choice are worshipful in nature, it's another matter entirely.
Take Peace on Earth's lead single, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." The poetic lyrics penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow document how hope emerged from a crisis of faith the writer experienced after he lost his wife in a house fire and soon saw his son crippled in the Civil War.
"He wrote about how every year when these Christmas bells ring, it reminds him that there's peace on earth, good will toward men, " explains Hall. "But this time around, the reality of the world he lives in at that moment rushes in. The verses change, and suddenly he's saying, 'But there is no peace. There's war, and there's hate. And this hate mocks the song of the bells.' He's working through his understanding of Christmas. And as the bells keep ringing, he just has this moment when he realizes God is not dead, nor does He sleep. Good will prevail. God is going to save the day." The timelessness of the song's potent hope-filled message is glaring to Hall-especially in light of today's world events. "This generation needs to hear this song, " he says. "My kids need to hear this song."
In a creative musical twist, Hall decided the carol's song of the bells should actually be sung by the bells. Thus a boys choir personifies the bells and hypnotically sings the "peace on earth" refrain. "The bells remind us of hope, " he explains. "And when you hear a child sing, it's the same thing. It reminds us today might be dark, but this is what tomorrow sounds like." As a resulting irony, there are no literal bells used in Hall & Co.'s version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
This unusual approach set the tone throughout Peace on Earth. "Christmas records are a chance to branch out and do things you haven't done before, " says Hall, who for the first time shares co-production credits with his longtime producer-Sawyer Brown's Mark Miller.
Casting Crowns fans will notice the support vocals by the band's keyboardist Megan Garrett and violinist Melodee DeVevo are much more prominent-especially on the Amy Grant classic "God is With Us, " in which Hall steps back to share lead vocal duties. "I really wanted to get Megan and Melodee out there and let people hear the gifts they have, and it was a great chance to do that, " he explains.
DeVevo's musical arrangements and entrancing violin take center stage for another Casting Crowns rarity-an instrumental in the form of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Says Hall, "She's always sneaking in and sneaking out-intros and outros of what we do. But she's probably the most talented musician in the band."
In addition to the beloved Christmas faves on Peace on Earth, fans will also experience a popular Casting Crowns song in a new light. Unbeknownst to most, Hall originally wrote "While You Were Sleeping" as a Christmas song when he was in college. Thematically inspired by "O Little Town of Bethlehem, " the composition's lyrics were eventually changed to make the song less "seasonal" before including it on Casting Crowns' second platinum album, Lifesong. Now, to Hall's delight, fans will hear the original version.
Peace on Earth also boasts moving renditions of "Silent Night" (Hall's all-time favorite), "Joy to the World, " the Paul Baloche-penned "Christmas Offering, " "O Come All Ye Faithful, " "Sweet Little Jesus Boy, " and "Away in a Manger" (as it originally appeared on 2005's WOW Christmas).
An "event album" this significant surely calls for a national tour. Indeed Casting Crowns, who sold 450,000 tickets in more than 80 cities during its last outing, will headline the 14-city "Casting Crowns Christmas Celebration" with a 20-piece orchestra in November and December. The tour will also feature Natalie Grant, Denver & the Mile High Orchestra, Avalon, Michael English, and pureNRG.
Whether in the recording studio or taking these new songs out on the road, Casting Crowns is eager to see these renditions connect. "I was excited to revisit songs that I'd sung as a child, " says Hall, "songs that meant a lot to me that I want people to hear a different way and rediscover the wonder that comes along with Jesus' birth. These songs have been speaking into the hearts of people for years, but since music changes, and our culture changes, let's lay into the setting of this culture's music, and maybe they'll rediscover the message."
And a timely discovery of that timeless message that will be. In a climate both at home and abroad when anxiety is often the word of the day, we need to be reminded that we are not alone-God is with us. And not only with us...His peace, hope and joy are on the move. With Peace on Earth, Casting Crowns not only reminds us of this, the band renders a tangible expression of these truths in action.
The Midas touch continues. There may be an eventual misstep in the best-selling worship group's career -- they always come at some point -- but this surely isn't it. Rather, Peace on Earth is another victorious achievement.